No Man’s La La Land: The 89th Academy Awards

For F*** Magazine

NO MAN’S LA LA LAND
The 89th Academy Awards saves the biggest shock for last
By Jedd Jong

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And it was all going so smoothly.

The 89th Academy Awards, which took place on 26 January 2017 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, was proceeding swimmingly. Host Jimmy Kimmel was doing a fine job. Despite capping off an awards season fraught with political tension, the mood in the Dolby Theatre didn’t seem to be one of anger. Impassioned statements were made, but things were kept light enough. The musical La La Land, which had netted 14 nominations, had already clinched six awards. Moonlight, the queer coming-of-age romance, had scored two awards.

Then came the final award of the night.

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To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde, stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the Oscar for Best Picture. Beatty opened the envelope, stared at the slip within, and passed it on to Dunaway, who announced that La La Land won.

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The majority of pundits had predicted as much. Another Oscars done and dusted, right?

In a flub of grand proportions, it turned out that Moonlight was the actual Best Picture winner. Jordan Horowitz, one of the film’s producers, was in the midst of his acceptance speech when he was abruptly informed that La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.

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“To hell with dreams. I’m done with it. This is true,” Moonlight director Barry Jenkins said as he tried to process what had just unfolded. The luminaries that filled the theatre were noticeably aghast, with Charlize Theron glowering at the stage. Kimmel attempted to salvage the situation, looking apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault. Beatty clarified that the slip in the envelope read ‘La La Land: Emma Stone’ – a duplicate of the Best Actress envelope, which led to the snafu.

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Up until that point, the proceedings had been generally pleasant. Anticipating that this would be a politically-charged ceremony, Kimmel made an effort to keep things light. “Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” the talk show host quipped. Small parcels of candy and later, cookies and donuts were parachuted down from the Dolby Theatre rafters, much to the delight of the audience. A group of unsuspecting tourists were led from their Star Line tour bus into the Dolby Theatre to interact with the stars. And of course, Kimmel played up his long-standing mock feud with Matt Damon, mocking Damon for opting to star in The Great Wall, which he called a “Chinese ponytail movie” instead of Manchester by the Sea, which Damon remained on as a producer.

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Justin Timberlake’s energetic performance of the cheery “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” from Trolls opened the show, which also included several other enjoyable moments. These include Michael J. Fox and Seth Rogen emerging from a DeLorean on the stage, after which Rogen broke out into the Schuyler Sisters song from the musical Hamilton, much to the amusement of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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Miranda rapped an original prologue to “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, performed by the voice of Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho. The 16-year-old was unfazed when a dancer accidentally bumped against the back of her head with a prop meant to depict ocean waves. Sting performed “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story, while John Legend sang a medley of the two nominated songs from La La Land, “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. We were disappointed that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did not perform the numbers. Kimmel interacted with child actor Sunny Pawar, who played young Saroo in the biopic Lion. The host hoisted Pawar aloft, ala The Lion King, with Pawar’s father looking on approvingly.

While the tone wasn’t overtly confrontational, presenters and winners alike slipped anti-Trump messages into their speeches. In the lead-up to the Oscars, hackles were raised over the travel ban instated by President Trump, which barred travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. To protest this, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi boycotted the Oscars, with the other nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category rallying behind him.

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When Farhadi’s film The Salesman won, Iranian-American astronaut, engineer and businesswoman Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on his behalf. “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” Ansari, reading from a prepared statement by Farhadi, said. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.”

“As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us,” presenter Gael García Bernal declared emphatically.

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“I’m from Italy, I work around the world,” said makeup artist Alessandro Bertolazzi, accepting the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award for Suicide Squad. “This is for all the immigrants.”

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The White Helmets, about volunteer rescue workers providing emergency relief in war-torn Syria, clinched the Best Documentary Short Subject award. Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara implored the audience to rise to their feet, to show the people of Syria that they have not gone unnoticed by the far more privileged.

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Viola Davis, who was crowned Best Supporting Actress for Fences, delivered an impactful speech that left many in the theatre misty-eyed. She passionately exhorted for filmmakers to “exhume” the stories of “the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition,” giving credit to Fences playwright August Wilson, her co-star and director Denzel Washington, and God.

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Stone, who was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for Birdman, took home the Best Actress Oscar for playing Mia in La La Land. She thanked her co-star Ryan Gosling, calling him “the greatest partner on this crazy adventure.” Stone humbly acknowledged that she “still [has] a lot of growing and learning and work to do” and called the Oscar statue “a really beautiful symbol to continue on that journey and I’m so grateful for that.”

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Mahershala Ali, who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Moonlight, thanked his wife Amatus Sami-Karim, who had given birth to their daughter Bari Najima Ali just four days earlier. “I had so many wonderful teachers,” Ali said. “One thing that they consistently told me is that it wasn’t about you. It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You’re a servant — you’re in service to these stories and these characters.” Ali became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar.

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Despite rumblings that sexual assault allegations levelled against Casey Affleck a year ago would hurt his shot at the big prize, Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. “One of the first people who taught me how to act was Denzel Washington, and I just met him tonight for the first time,” Affleck said. He also thanked long-time friend and producer Damon, while giving a shout-out to his famous older brother. “Ben, I love you,” Affleck said, quipping “You ain’t heavy” in reference to the song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Just My Brother”.

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32-year-old Damien Chazelle made history by being the youngest ever Best Director winner. Making special mention of his girlfriend Olivia Hamilton, the La La Land helmer said “This was a movie about love, and I was lucky enough to fall in love while making it. And it means the world to me that you’re here with me sharing it.” He also thanked producer/composer Justin Hurwitz – the two have known each other since they were 17.

The full list of winners and nominees follows:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
WINNER: Suicide Squad

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Allied
WINNER: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
WINNER: OJ: Made in America
13th

 

BEST SOUND EDITING

WINNER: Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Sully

BEST SOUND MIXING

Arrival
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

WINNER: Viola Davis (Fences)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
WINNER: The Salesman
Tanna
Toni Erdmann

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Pearl
WINNER: Piper

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
WINNER: Zootopia

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
WINNER: La La Land
Passengers

 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
WINNER: The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST FILM EDITING

Arrival
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Moonlight

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

4.1 Miles
Extremis
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
WINNER: The White Helmets

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT SUBJECT

Ennemis Interieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights
WINNER: Sing
Timecode

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Arrival
WINNER: La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Jackie
WINNER: La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Passengers

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Audition (La La Land)
Can’t Stop the Feeling! (Trolls)
WINNER: City of Stars (La La Land)
The Empty Chair (Jim: The James Foley Story)
How Far I’ll Go (Moana)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
WINNER: Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion
WINNER: Moonlight

BEST DIRECTOR

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
WINNER: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

BEST ACTOR

WINNER: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Denzel Washington (Fences)

BEST ACTRESS

Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
WINNER: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

BEST PICTURE

Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
ANNOUNCED AS WINNER IN ERROR: La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
WINNER: Moonlight

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Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

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Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

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Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

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The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

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Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

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While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

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Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Collide

For F*** Magazine

COLLIDE

Director : Eran Creevy
Cast : Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Marwan Kenzari, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Christian Rubeck
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 39min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

 

collide-posterThe Fast and Furious franchise may have cornered the market on car-centric action flicks, and while its reigning status remains unchallenged, it’s fun to see what more modestly-budgeted flicks in the same subgenre bring to the table.

Collide centres on Casey (Hoult), an American backpacker who, alongside his friend Matthias (Kenzari), is working for eccentric Turkish drug lord Geran (Kingsley) in Germany. When Casey meets bartender Juliette (Jones), a fellow American, he falls hard for her and swears off his life of crime. Juliette suddenly discovers she has a terminal illness, and Casey decides to plunge back into the murky underworld waters, planning a daring heist to save Juliette’s life. Casey plans to rob a shipment of drugs belonging to kingpin Hagen Kahl (Hopkins), whom the general public regards as a legitimate titan of industry. Casey soon finds out he’s bitten off more than he can chew, as he is ruthlessly pursued by Kahl’s men along the Autobahn, the German highway with no speed limits.

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By all counts, Collide is a fairly generic action thriller. With its European locale, Hollywood stars, fast cars, shootouts and slick camera moves, it seems like something Luc Besson would’ve produced, and at times comes off as a slightly less outlandish Transporter movie. Collide is directed by Eran Creevy, who burst onto the scene with his crime drama Shifty and followed it up with the stylish but flawed thriller Welcome to the Punch. Screenwriter F. Scott Frazier penned the deliriously silly xXx: Return of Xander Cage. While Collide doesn’t reach those ludicrously entertaining heights, it’s still decent fun. The central action set piece features some exciting stunt driving. True to its title, there are collisions galore – plus lots and lots of cars flipping through the air. It’s nothing that will be particularly impressive to anyone who’s been fed a steady diet of action movies, but it’s staged with considerable finesse.

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The cast is what makes Collide worth a look, if only as a curiosity. If someone told you Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins were in a movie together, your first instinct would likely be that the film in question is a prestige biopic. Zac Efron and Amber Heard were originally cast as Casey and Juliette respectively, and it seems they would fit the characters better. Casey is a roguish ne’er-do-well with a romantic streak, and Juliette is the beguiling, free-spirited love of his life. It is very difficult to argue that Efron and Heard are better actors than Hoult and Jones. Casey seems practically invincible, but Hoult lends the character vulnerability and pathos. The final casting comes off as a little odd: we have Hoult the action hero and Jones the blonde party girl. Their chemistry doesn’t crackle, but watching both actors play against type in what is mostly a standard action movie does have its moments.

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Collide
is an unremarkable, unambitious action movie that’s made entertaining by its cast. It’s not the kind of movie one would expect two Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee to pop up in, but therein lies the novelty. There’s some charm to its silliness and the action sequences pass muster.Hopkins and Kingsley are consummate scene-stealers, and any action movie should be so lucky as to have them play duelling crime lords. Hopkins gets to give a Bond villain speech, making us wonder why he hasn’t yet played an actual Bond villain. In the middle of said speech, he busts out a completely unexpected, very amusing impression of an 80s action star. Kingsley is having a full-on good time as the loopy Geran, chewing scenery left and right and being unabashedly silly. We were expecting that Hopkins and Kingsley would do one, maybe two scenes each before leaving to collect their paycheques, but both have substantial screen time and are not phoning it in in the slightest.

 

Summary: Collide is built from familiar parts, but is far from a car wreck thanks to an overqualified cast.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fist Fight

For F*** Magazine

FIST FIGHT

Director : Richie Keen
Cast : Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Dean Norris, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson, Christina Hendricks, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language & Sexual References)

fist-fight-posterAs far as big screen match-ups go, Charlie Day vs. Ice Cube might not be as exciting as Batman vs. Superman or Rocky vs. Apollo Creed, but it’s got to be funny, right? Day plays Andy Campbell, a milquetoast English teacher at Roosevelt High School. When hot-tempered history teacher Ron Strickland (Cube) loses his job after lashing out at a student, he blames Campbell for snitching on him. Strickland challenges Campbell to a fight in the parking lot on the last day of school. Campbell has promised his daughter Ally (Nisenson) that he’d be at her talent show performance, and his wife Maggie (Garcia Swisher) is close to delivering their second child, so he has enough on his plate. In a panic, Campbell seeks the help of Holly (Bell), the guidance counsellor who frequently behaves inappropriately towards students, and the inept coach Freddie Coward (Morgan). The ‘teacher fight’ becomes the talk of the school, and the town at large, as all gather to witness the momentous throw-down.

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Fist Fight is a loose remake of the 1987 comedy Three O’Clock High – in the original film, the fight was between a meek student reporter and a brutish new student. Fist Fight is a production line comedy through and through, and one quickly realises that none of the characters are exactly likeable. There’s only so much humour that can be mined from the premise of teachers, instead of students, engaging in a schoolyard fight. The attempt to tack on half-hearted commentary about the state of the public school system in the United States doesn’t make this movie any more worthwhile. Each character’s personality and actions are exaggerated for comic effect, but because everything is so over-the-top, it’s difficult to find a foothold and get invested in the characters. Each situation that arises seems like it could be dealt with more sensibly, but hijinks wouldn’t ensue otherwise. Director Richie Keen lets his actors riff and improvise, but the comedy feels stale, with moments like a child swearing for shock value coming off as the work of a hack.

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Both Day and Cube play characters that are in line with their established comedic personas. Day is shrill and neurotic, the pushover who apologises too much and who lets his students and colleagues alike run roughshod over him. While the character is meant to be sympathetic, he’s often unbearably annoying. Because he doesn’t want to engage in violence with a fellow teacher, Campbell is characterised as “a pussy” and is mocked by everyone from his charges to the 9/11 operators. This lazily perpetuates the notion that the only way a ‘real man’ can solve a problem is by physically beating said problem up, and that any other approach is a tell-tale sign of weakness.

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Cube’s no-nonsense, imposing shtick is no different from the roles he’s played in recent comedies, the Ride Along movies being the immediate examples that come to mind. Fans of the rapper/actor will get a kick out of a reference to one of NWA’s biggest hits, but Cube does nothing too interesting over the course of the film. A teacher who brandishes a fire axe to intimidate his students and proceeds to hack a desk to pieces with said fire axe is a dangerous person who shouldn’t be allowed near, let alone in, a school. Real-world logic goes flying out the window, and with it, any inclination to care about these characters.

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The film does have a funny supporting cast, but they’re stuck with tired material – or frantically trying to generate their own. It’s nice to see Morgan on screen again, in his first role since his near-fatal car accident in 2014. Alas, he doesn’t do much beyond bumbling about being ineffectual. Bell’s character is built upon the single joke that she’s a guidance counsellor who’s a terrible example to her students, and that she’s obsessed with sleeping with them. It’s amusing for a bit, then becomes tired and distasteful. Hendricks is funny as a possibly psychotic teacher, but is underused. Garcia Swisher is just “the wife”, relegated to the side-lines for most of the film, while Nisenson is “the daughter”.

 

Fist Fight is an unpleasant if fitfully amusing comedy, built on a flawed premise and inhabited with characters with whom we want to spend as little time as possible. Thankfully, it’s all over in 91 minutes, with several minutes of bloopers used to pad out that running time.

 

Summary: Uninspired and misguided, Fist Fight pairs its message of ‘real men seek pointless conflict’ with lacklustre humour and unsympathetic characters.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Sleepless

For F*** Magazine

SLEEPLESS

Director : Baran bo Odar
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, Octavius J. Johnson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

sleepless-posterJamie Foxx is up all night trying not to get killed in this action thriller. Foxx plays Vincent Downs, a crooked Las Vegas cop. Along with his accomplice Sean Cass (Harris), Vincent steals a shipment of cocaine from business tycoon Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). Rubino is in cahoots with the unhinged mobster Rob Novak (McNairy), heir to a Vegas criminal empire. When Rubino finds out about Vincent’s involvement, his men kidnap Vincent’s teenage son Thomas (Johnson). Vincent goes about rescuing his son, while keeping the kidnapping a secret from his estranged ex-wife Dena (Union). Meanwhile, Vincent earns the suspicion of Internal Affairs investigators Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan) and Doug Dennison (Harbour). All parties clash over the course of one night in a battle that tears through the Luxus Casino and Hotel.

Sleepless is a remake of the 2011 film Sleepless Night, a French-Belgian-Luxembourgian co-production. Sleepless Night was also remade as the Tamil-language action thriller Thoongam Vanam. Sleepless might star A-lister Foxx and possess fairly slick production values, but it’s hard to shake the vibe of a disposable direct-to-DVD action thriller. Despite all the twists and turns the story takes, Sleepless never becomes more than a blandly generic crime movie, failing to put a spin on familiar tropes. Seeing as the bulk of the film is set in the span of one night, it should have a breathless, pulse-pounding momentum. No such luck. This feels considerably longer than its 95-minute running time, even with a healthy number of action sequences.

sleepless-t-i-and-jamie-foxxThe official Twitter account for the film brazenly declares it “the action event of the year”. We would like to have seen the PR person stifle laughter as they typed this. While it by no means even approaches that hyperbolic statement, the action in this is not terrible, thanks to the involvement of veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Imada’s credits include the first three Bourne movies and several of the Fast and Furious films, so the fights in Sleepless do look brutal, if uninventive. Foxx and Harbour throw down in a spa, and the climactic showdown that moves from the casino floor to the garage does generate some excitement. Alas, it’s all too rote to stick in the mind of any action aficionado, and director Odar’s workmanlike style, heavy on the shaky-cam, lacks panache.

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Foxx’s natural charisma is rendered moot in a role which is all knitted brows and gritted teeth. We’re introduced to Vincent as he steals drugs from a crime lord, but fret not, all is not as it seems and Vincent emerges as a typically heroic figure. Dispensing with the realism, Vincent shakes off being stabbed in the stomach like it’s no big deal. Monaghan is miscast as a dogged, tough cop, unable to shake her innate sweetness and coming off as unconvincing when she has to deliver silly hard-boiled dialogue. Both Harbour and McNairy are interesting actors despite not yet having that high a profile, Harbour being best known for Stranger Things and McNairy for Argo. Neither actor phones it in, but there’s not much they can do with this material. McNairy does try to have fun as the violent mobster scion, but is unable to significantly enliven the proceedings.

While Sleepless never plumbs the depths of bad movies that are dumped into theatres by studios in the beginning of each year, its mediocrity is still frustrating. It’s too dour to be fun and silly and too sluggish to be a piece of throwaway escapism.

 

Summary: An exercise in going through the motions, Sleepless is a crime thriller that fails to quicken the pulse.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Return

For F*** Magazine

THE RETURN 

Director : Green Zeng
Cast : Chen Tianxiang, Vincent Tee, Tan Beng Chiak, Gary Tang, Wong Kai Tow, Eve Tan, Eugene Tan
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 23min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

the-return-posterSingapore’s political detainees, arrested under the Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting pro-Communist activities in the 60s, are talked about in hushed tones when they’re discussed at all. It’s a particularly touchy aspect of our country’s history that is often misunderstood, with high-profile documentary and narrative films on the subject being banned in Singapore.

This drama centres on Lim Soon Wen (Chen), a fictional political detainee who was arrested on suspicion of being a Communist. Decades later, Wen is released, and returns to his family. While his daughter Mei (Tan Beng Chiak) is overjoyed to see her father again, Wen’s son Tien (Tee) harbours resentment towards his father, as Wen’s absence made it difficult for the family to eke out a living. In the intervening years, Wen’s wife Lian has passed away. Wen wanders the city, familiarising himself with a Singapore transformed. While Wen is ready to start anew, his past continues to haunt him, and he realises his decades-long struggle is still far from over.

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The Return was selected to compete at the International Film Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. The film has since been screened at film festivals in Singapore, Cairo, Hanoi, Luang Prabang and Kerala, and is now having a limited theatrical release at FilmGarde Bugis+. This is the feature film directorial debut of multi-disciplinary artist Green Zeng, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife June Chua, who is also the film’s producer. Melancholic and contemplative, Zeng couches The Return as a family drama, with the politics remaining strictly in the background. The specifics of Wen’s detention and imprisonment are deliberately vague, and the film focuses instead on the emotional toll that the separation from his loved ones took on Wen and his family.

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Several disorienting, eerie dream sequences convey that Wen might never be able to shake the trauma of his time as a political detainee. The film’s opening minutes contain one of the most elegant passage-of-time transitions we’ve seen. However, The Return is difficult to get into, and feels longer than its 83-minute running time. There isn’t much of a narrative drive, with a few dramatic incidents pushing the plot along. The film’s themes of longing and making up for lost time are moving, but Zeng’s restrained approach is a double-edged sword, preventing the film from reaching any emotional high points.

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The Return is anchored by Chen Tianxiang’s quietly dignified performance. Chen, a veteran actor who began his career on Rediffusion radio plays, takes his first leading role in this film. Wen is caught in between the past and the present, fighting an ongoing battle to reconcile the two. We see modern-day Singapore through Wen’s eyes: in one scene, he looks upon the Fort Canning Tunnel, which the Old National Library Building was demolished to make way for. In another, he stands beneath the Nantah arch – the Chinese-educated students of Nanyang University made up a significant proportion of anti-government protesters in the 1960s.

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The relationships between Wen and Mei and Wen and Tien are heart-rending in their own ways. Tien’s bitterness and scorn towards his father is somewhat justified, and while there are leaps in character development, Tien is sympathetic in his own way. While Chen is believable throughout, Tee and Tan Beng Chiak can be a little unconvincing during the film’s more dramatic moments.

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A scene in which a documentary filmmaker (Eve Tan) interviews Wen about his release seems to exist primarily to deliver exposition. While at a convenience store, Wen and his young grandson stop to watch a TV news broadcast about the 2013 Little India Riot, the first riot in Singapore in over 40 years. This seems pretty on-the-nose. Despite the odd clumsy moment, The Return is an intimate, heartfelt tale that highlights the human cost of political detention while never courting controversy outright.

 

Summary: Most of the drama in The Return is internal rather than external, but its humanist perspective on sacrifice in the name of political ideals is quietly stirring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Alone in Berlin

For F*** Magazine

ALONE IN BERLIN

Director : Vincent Perez
Cast : Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt, Katharina Schüttler, Louis Hofmann
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 43min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

alone-in-berlin-posterAdapted from Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Alone in Berlin tells of a small but spirited resistance from within the heart of Nazi Germany. It is 1940, and working-class Berliners Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) Quangel receive news that their only son has died in combat. After witnessing the treatment of an old Jewish woman in their apartment block, Otto and Anna begin writing postcards containing short messages exhorting for the people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Otto wants to leave his wife out of it for her protection, but Anna insists in standing alongside her husband. They leave the postcards in public places, and this soon attracts the attention of the police. Escherich (Brühl), the detective put in charge of hunting down the perpetrators, finds himself gaining respect for his elusive targets, while starting to question Nazi ideology.

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Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalisation of the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has been adapted for TV and film in German several times, and was also made into a Czech television miniseries. The English translation of the 1947 German novel was only published in 2009. While the story of ordinary German citizens who attempt to stand against the oppressive Nazi regime has the potential to be powerfully resonant, said potential is only glimpsed a few precious times in this film. The family of Swiss actor/director Perez, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experienced the horrors of World War II first-hand. Perez’s grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain, his great uncle was gassed by Nazis, and another uncle died in battle on the Russian front. As such, it’s curious that he seems to approach the material with a distinct lack of passion.

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Thanks to location filming in Berlin, Cologne and Görlitz, Alone in Berlin possesses decent production values. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to pull the viewer in. For a film about a time and place where there was danger on all sides, Alone in Berlin fails to generate any urgency or tension. We get an adequate sense of the oppression that the Nazis imposed on their subjects, but nothing leaps off the screen. It’s generic historical drama stuff, when the story of Otto and Elise Hampel deserves a more searing telling.

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Thompson and Gleeson are both fine actors. They don’t get too many notes to play beyond “downtrodden”, but are invested in the material. The varying strength of the German accents across the cast can be a little distracting. Mark Rylance was originally cast as Otto, and in part because Gleeson is still unmistakably Irish, we think he might have been a better choice. Brühl tries to give Escherich notes beyond that of the typical dogged inspector, but only makes an emotional impact in the film’s closing moments. The Gestapo agents are stereotypically, blandly evil.
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The perspective of the common man living in Nazi Germany coupled with the fact that it’s based on a true story should have made Alone in Berlin a powerful work. Instead, even with its strong lead performances, much of the film is mired in mediocrity. Offering not enough insight into the minds of dissidents in Nazi Germany, nor serving up any wartime cloak-and-dagger mystique, Alone in Berlin will leave most viewers cold.

Summary: Finely-acted but too sluggish and dour to be genuinely moving, Alone in Berlin is far from the full-bodied, stirring tale it should’ve been.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 2

For F*** Magazine

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 

Director : Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 2min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence)

john-wick-chapter-2-posterMuch like Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, John Wick (Reeves) is a man who just can’t retire. After avenging the death of his puppy, the final gift from his late wife Helen (Moynahan), John thinks his hitman days are finally over. However, his former associate Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) comes calling to collect on a blood oath Santino and John made years earlier. Santino tasks John with killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini), so Santino can take her place on a high council of assassins. John reluctantly travels to Rome, facing off against scores of skilled hired guns. These include Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and Santino’s security chief Ares (Rose). Back in New York, John seeks the assistance of old allies Winston (McShane), who runs the Continental Hotel, and Charon (Reddick), the hotel’s concierge. John also reunites with the Bowery King (Fishburne), a crime lord with whom John has had a tempestuous professional relationship. With a large bounty put on his head, it’s open season on John Wick.

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2014’s John Wick is hailed as a minor masterpiece in contemporary action cinema. While it contained many familiar tropes of the hitman movie subgenre, it boasted exceedingly stylish action and established an intriguing mini-mythology. Chad Stahelski, who directed the first film with fellow stunt coordinator/second unit director David Leitch, helms this outing solo. John Wick: Chapter 2 contains everything that worked the first time around. It’s largely more of the same, but it’s good. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands on the heightened world, introducing more elements central to the apparently global assassin subculture. Not only are there hitmen decked out in expensive suits who hang out in plush hotels, there are homeless assassins now. Much like the first go-round, this is a tonally assured work: there are dry winks and nods at the more absurd aspects of the premise, while steering clear of all-out self-parody.

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Aided by veteran stunt coordinators Darrin Prescott and J.J. Perry, Stahelski serves up a surfeit of fluidly orchestrated violence. The body count here far exceeds the first film, and there are plenty of messy headshots along the way. All the fights, shootouts and chases hit that sweet spot of being stylised and designed while retaining visceral impact. John is a one-man army and because of his nigh-superhuman prowess, the audience never really feels that he’s in grave danger from his opponents. However, the proceedings are never boring and always eye-catching. A showdown in the ancient catacombs beneath Rome is contrasted with a game of cat-and-mouse set in a maze of mirrors. The latter is at once disorienting and mesmerizing, and is also a technical feat seeing how a set comprised entirely of mirrors would make it difficult to hide cameras and crew.
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It’s been repeatedly noted that Reeves is not an actor with staggering emotional range, but just as in the first John Wick, he makes for a compelling force of nature. Even pretending to be an expert marksman or hand-to-hand combatant is tricky, but Reeves makes it all look so effortless. Deep beneath his unyielding surface, John is a sorrowful figure. Even though John should be no less fantastical a character than any action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Reeves gives him a vital grounding.

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Many of the supporting players from the first film, including McShane, Reddick and Leguizamo, return, giving this a strong sense of continuity. Italian actor Scamarcio exudes the sliminess one would expect of a mafia heir without turning the character into a caricature. Gerini’s Gianna has a confrontation with John that is as sexy as it ominous. The film’s detour to Rome seems a little too brief, but the location and the D’Antonio siblings do expand the story’s scope. Iconic Italian actor Franco Nero makes a cameo as the manager of The Continental Rome.

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Common gets to grapple with Reeves in an intense fight, but is ultimately little more than a generic henchman. Rose gets a slightly more interesting role as the mute Ares. She cuts an elegant figure in a suit and is entrancing as she signs her “dialogue”. It’s fun to see Reeves reunite with Fishburne, his co-star from the Matrix films. Fishburne’s Bowery King is cheery and exuberant, but we get the sense that this belies an uncompromising ruthlessness. Peter Stormare, who has long been on speed-dial for Hollywood casting directors in search of scenery-chomping European villains, shows up too.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 contains equal measures of muscularity and finesse, an action movie carved from polished obsidian. As the middle instalment in a planned trilogy, the film’s conclusion is open-ended, but its cliff-hanger is tantalising rather than howl-inducing. On top of that, the pit bull that John adopted at the end of the first film is adorably obedient.

Summary: Fans of the first film will be transfixed by John Wick: Chapter 2’s brutal, balletic action. The fascinating hitman subculture lore also gets built upon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

Director : Pablo Larraín
Cast : Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

jackie-posterJacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, the wife of John F. Kennedy, is among the most iconic First Ladies in U.S. history. This biopic pulls back the curtain on the queen of Camelot, limning the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie (Portman) hosts a journalist (Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, sitting down for an interview. It is not long after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in Dallas. The film depicts Jackie’s interactions with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Sarsgaard), her confidante and the White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) and a priest (Hurt) who counsels Jackie on the day of the funeral. Jackie must also explain JFK’s death to their young children Caroline (Sunny Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg).

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Jackie aims to pierce the iconography that has surrounded Jacqueline Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim seek to unearth the woman behind the elegant style icon, while also sidestepping the expected tropes of an awards season biopic. The framing device of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film) contextualises several vignettes which are deliberately placed out of order. This creates a disorienting effect and makes it more challenging to follow Jackie’s emotional journey, but in a strange way, is also more engaging. However, this does lead to a choppiness, and there’s the possibility that without this structural trickery, the story would be boring and straightforward.

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Part of Jackie is a flashback to the filming of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House, in which Jackie guides audiences nationwide through the executive mansion after the extensive remodelling she had spearheaded. Real footage from that TV special is spliced together with footage shot for this film, giving the subconscious effect that we are given a privileged look at the angles the TV cameras did not see. While much of Jackie is dedicated to how the title character processed the trauma of sitting beside her husband as he was violently killed, the film also explores how she cultivated her image and crafted the First Family’s legacy. Jackie discusses JFK’s fondness for the musical Camelot with the journalist, and a scene in which she stands in the otherwise empty Oval Office with the musical’s title song playing in the background is positively haunting.

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Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, Portman hasn’t taken on many high-profile roles, and has recently turned her attention to directing. Jackie puts her back on the awards season map, and her Oscar nomination for this film is well-deserved. It’s a bravura yet nuanced turn, and if the prospect of playing such a well-known public figure intimidated her, Portman never shows it. While she looks and sounds the part, Jackie is about more than how its title character looked or sounded. Portman conveys the profound sorrow and the pressure of life in the public eye, while also essaying Jackie’s impish appeal. The glimpses of fire behind her eyes are impactful, and when the camera locks on her face as she weeps, one cannot look away.

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Because of the film’s laser focus on Jackie herself, the supporting players are largely relegated to the background. Crudup’s Journalist is not even named in the film and is meant to be a cipher, therefore there’s not much personality he’s able to bring to the part. Sarsgaard’s Robert, also crumbling from grief and pressure, is magnetic and volatile. This reviewer was hoping for the relationship between Jackie and her close friend and White House employee Nancy Tuckerman to get more screen time than it did. The late John Hurt is a comforting, warmly authoritative presence even though it’s a small part.

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Director Larraín cuts through the narrative of the Kennedy clan as a tragic American fairy-tale, while not necessarily undercutting the notion. This film gives Jackie her due, and is a star vehicle that ideally matches Portman’s talents. First Ladies have been often appraised mainly for their style rather than their own merits, with Jackie inadvertently becoming the poster child for that. Jackie finds the woman behind the coiffed bob, Chanel coat and pearls, painting a vivid portrait of Camelot’s queen.

Summary: A biopic which plays with the genre’s conventions just enough, Jackie features an entrancing turn from Natalie Portman and is respectful of its subject while avoiding blandness.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Manchester by the Sea

For F*** Magazine

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

Director : Kenneth Lonergan
Cast : Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWhile promoting Batman v Superman, Ben Affleck turned forlorn when the film’s negative reception was brought up. His expression went viral and was coined “Sadfleck”. Now, it’s his brother Casey’s turn to do the moping in this drama.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee keeps to himself and sometimes has terse confrontations with the apartment’s tenants. When Lee’s elder brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack, Lee is surprised to learn that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). Because Joe’s ex-wife Elise (Mol) is an alcoholic, Joe decided against giving her custody of Patrick. Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after Patrick. Lee’s sullen caginess makes it difficult for him and his nephew to bond meaningfully. Going back to Manchester-by-the-Sea unearths painful memories for Lee, whose marriage with his ex-wife Randi (Williams) ended under tragic circumstances. He dreads the prospect of permanently moving back, while Patrick is adamant against having his life uprooted and moving to Quincy with Lee.

Manchester by the Sea has been the subject of Oscar buzz ever since its premiere at the Sundance film festival in 2016. It’s on the “best of 2016” lists of numerous critics, has been repeatedly deemed “a masterpiece” and at the time of writing, is up for six Oscar nominations.

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We understand why it’s been such a hit with critics: it’s a character study about grief and loss that’s mature and largely subdued. In an awards season that takes place during a particularly fraught period in American politics, it’s not tackling any topical issues. We appreciate that despite the undercurrent of pain, it’s not oppressively bleak, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan allows the film to be gently humorous where appropriate. It avoids gloopy sentiment or overwrought histrionics and unfolds naturistically.

By shunning surface-level excitement, Manchester by the Sea feels swamped by mundanity. It’s not an easy film to get into because of its unhurried pace and uneventful nature. The film’s nonlinear structure takes a bit of getting used to, especially because there’s no obvious indication that certain scenes are flashbacks. As an examination of repressed emotions and the angst of the working class white male, Manchester by the Sea is painfully honest but can come across as self-indulgent. Its 137-minute running time is altogether too long, and the emotional impact delivered by a dramatic reveal in the middle of the film dissipates as it continues.

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Matt Damon was originally cast as Lee, and remains as a producer. Affleck’s leading turn has been raking in the plaudits, and deservedly so: it’s not a showy performance and is sensitively nuanced. Lee is flat-out unlikeable, and picks fights in bars because he has no outlet through which to channel his hurt and frustration. The reasons for Lee’s self-destructive tendencies and self-loathing are revealed as the film progresses. Affleck demonstrates an understanding of externalising grief, which can be handled clumsily in a lesser actor’s hands. It’s a performance that engenders equal amounts of sympathy and frustration – just when one thinks Lee might make a breakthrough, he falls back into a pattern of self-destruction.

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Hedges’ Patrick is written as more than the stock annoying teenager, and the dynamic he shares with Affleck works, even though the relationship goes through repetitive beats. Both Patrick and Lee are in dark places in their lives, but neither will open up to the other. There is some comedy derived from Patrick’s inept garage band, and that he’s juggling romantic relationships with two separate girls. There’s the danger that Patrick might turn out like his uncle, and if the film were more actively engaging, we’d be rooting for both to course-correct.

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Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi has garnered significant positive attention, given her relatively short screen time. The flashbacks show a happier time, when Lee and Randi’s disagreements were small and expected. The marriage implodes off-screen, and when Lee and Randi meet again years later, it is an emotional moment. Because nothing that exciting occurs, it dampens the visceral pain of the trauma that led to Lee and Randi parting ways.

While Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain nearly as much “woe is me” wallowing in self-pity as this review suggests, it is depressing by design, with brief glimmers of levity allowing the viewer to take a breath. Lesley Barber’s Baroque-inspired score is beautiful, but is sometimes slathered on too thick, and at odds with the muted realism Lonergan is aiming for. We comprehend that not all movies are meant to be entertaining in the traditional sense of the word, but while many are praising Manchester by the Sea as understated and sublime, it will generate apathy among more impatient viewers.

Summary: This awards season favourite is a strongly-acted portrait of grief that is sometimes too distant and meandering to be compelling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong